The Notre Dame men’s basketball team returned home Saturday night with its back against the wall following back-to-back Big East Conference losses. And when Rutgers erased a 13-point deficit late in the second half, the Fighting Irish made enough key plays to avoid going in full crisis mode and come away with a 69-66 victory.
Jack Cooley led Notre Dame with 19 points and 10 rebounds in a victory over Rutgers
Scarlet Knights guard Eli Carter’s drive cut his team’s deficit to 67-66 with eight seconds to play. Notre Dame point guard Eric Atkins turned the ball over on the next play and sixth-year senior Scott Martin and senior forward Jack Cooley were there to bail him out with the defensive play of the game with two seconds remaining. Martin was credited with taking a charge (after officials talked things over) on an attacking Carter, with Cooley trailing and lining up a block.
“I figured that they were going to try to get to the rim,” said Martin, whose defense performance overall helped offset another light night of offensive production (four points). “My man was just standing in the corner, I hope. That is where he was the last time I saw him. I tried to get to the spot. I was able to get there just in time. I knew that was a charge. I have taken a lot of them in my day.”
Atkins was fouled and made both free throws to give the Irish a 3-point cushion. Rutgers’ Myles Mack’s attempt to tie was long and Notre Dame improved to 15-3 overall and 3-2 in league play. The Scarlet Knights slipped to 12-5 overall and 3-3 in conference play.
“It’s a huge win for us,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “I’m thrilled; I’m thrilled. When you’re in this league and you lose a couple, you figure out a way to get one — a one-game win streak is huge in this league.
“… We couldn’t get a way from them, but I didn’t expect to get away from them. We almost needed to win one like that tonight.”
Notre Dame, despite being outrebounded 31-26, almost blew the doors off Rutgers, pulling away in the second half en route to a 48-35 lead with 16:50 to play. The Scarlet Knights clawed back with a 48.4-percent shooting effort from the field over the final 20 minutes and answered each time the Irish got three possessions in the clear.
A pair of layups in transition by Rutgers’ Carter (game-high 20 points) and a putback dunk by Mike Poole made it a 66-64 Irish lead with 19 seconds remaining.
“Their pressure rattled us a little; it got us on our heels and I think Eric was tired and they can come after you with speed and some athletic ability,” Brey said.
A re-energized Cooley led Notre Dame, which shot 49 percent (24-for-49) for the game, with 19 points and 10 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season and 24th of his career. Connaughton poured in 17 points, grabbed five boards and knocked down 4 of 6 attempts from behind the arc. Atkins added 14 points and four assists, but had five turnovers on the night.
“I thought we defended well and defended at key times,” Brey said. “It’s great to see Jack Cooley back in gear. Scott Martin taking that charge — that would be the guy to make a play like that at the end.”
Cooley doesn’t know what was behind his slump in losses to Connecticut and St. John’s in the last week, but he was fired up Saturday.
“It was all about focusing,” he said. “I needed to just get back out there and keep doing what I do. I watched some film from last year. Last year I had a pretty good game against these guys, so I wanted to see how I could improve from that.”
Notre Dame has a quick turnaround with a Monday home game against Georgetown at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. The Hoyas dropped a 61-58 decision at South Florida Saturday night to fall to 12-4 overall and 2-3 in Big East play.